Italian Journal, Day 13

Russell, Richard and Kish at the Forum

Russell, Richard and Kish at the Forum

June 21, 2003:

I’m writing this entry aboard our flight from Rome to JFK. It’s going to be a long flight — at least 8 hours, 30 minutes — and writing will help to pass the time somewhat. I thought I might jot down some thoughts on various topics.

First, a few thoughts about my traveling companions on this trip. I think any trip like this, where you go to a foreign country where English is not the native language, can either bring people closer together, or they get on each other’s nerves and become sick to death of each other. I feel like this vacation has helped to bring our family closer together. We spent a lot of time together, had lots of common experiences, and shared lots of common stories and jokes. These included my “obsessions” with churches, Italian foods, and other items, Richard’s fondness for Pizza Margheritas, Russell’s interest in trying Happy Hippos and other obscure Italian junk food, and Kish’s inability to even order food that she actually liked. We had some good laughs, and I think Richard and Russell got along well together.

In retrospect, I think Kish and I did a pretty good job of planning this trip. She handled all the details, and our reservations, car rentals, etc. came off without a hitch. If I had to do it over again, I probably would change only two parts of the trip — spending two days in Florence, and then heading south to Sorrento. I would either cut the trip short by two days, or juggle our schedule to that we could have gone to a town with a good beach where the boys could relax and we could spend a day without the urge to see some ruins or a Madonna and Child fresco. I also think that driving is a good way to get around Italy. It is more flexible than a train and, for four people, probably a lot cheaper. The only other difference I would consider in another trip would be to try to get hotels to give us more detailed directions on how to find them as we traveled. We spent many nerve-wracking minutes driving through towns with poorly marked streets, trying to find our hotels. If we could have done something to have avoided or minimized that, it would have reduced the stress involving in driving considerably.

Finally, I liked Italy very much. It was always hot, often dusty, and frequently crowded, but it is a fun and interesting place with some unique places to visit, some spectacular artwork to seek, and some superb culture to experience. The food is wonderful, and the Italians seem like nice, polite people who appreciate tourists (except when those Italians get into their cars and become aggressive, tailgating lunatics). I would come back to Italy again, but I think there are lots of other places to see and cultures to experience — in the U.S.A. and elsewhere in the world. I would certainly recommend Italy to someone who hasn’t visited it before, and I wouldn’t mind spending another day or two with Kish and the boys at La Badia.

Richard’s post-script: June 2003 — We enter the breakfast room for the first time . . . And Dad was never to be the same again . . . .

Kish’s post-script: We had a great two weeks of travel in Italy and, more importantly, family time.

Hanging out at the Trevi Fountain

Hanging out at the Trevi Fountain

Italian Journal, Day 12

Walking among the ruins at Pompeii

Walking among the ruins at Pompeii

June 20, 2003:

Our last full day in Italy began with a standard European breakfast at our hotel in Sorrento. It was another hot, brilliantly sunny day. The weather during our trip has been a bit hotter than we would choose, but we can’t complain about rain or the lack of sunshine. In the 11 days of our trip so far, we’ve had rain in only part of one day, as we drove into Orvieto. Other than that, the weather has been consistently sunny, bright, and clear, often with cloudless blue skies.

We lugged our suitcases up the steps at the parking garage at Sorrento, fit them into the trunk of the Opel Electra, and headed off to Pompeii. Initially, we had some winding roads, and I think we all groaned inwardly at the thought that we might have to recreate yesterday’s journey along part of the Amalfi coast. Fortunately, the fear was unfounded, and the road turned inland and straightened out somewhat. We reached Pompeii after traveling through some of the most uninspiring Italian landscape we have seen on our trip. The area right around the Pompeii excavations were like an Italian Morse Road. We pulled off and left our car at an attended lot. The attendant spoke virtually no English, but through sign language communicated where we were to park and that we were to leave our car unlocked, with the key inside. This time, we agreed, although still with some trepidation. There didn’t seem to be much choice if we wanted to see the ruins.

The Pompeii ruins don’t seem like much from the outside, or even as you initially enter. Soon, however, you realize two things. First, the ruins are far vaster than you would expect, extending across significant parts of the countryside. Second, the ruins are much better preserved than the ruins in, say, the Colisseum or the Forum. As a result, you soon begin to feel you are getting a better sense of what Roman life was actually like. A complete gladiator arena, theatres, houses, public areas, shops, and signs survived the ash that spewed from Mt. Vesuvius. Many of the houses had ornate tile designs in the floors and painted walls — with yellow and rust apparently being the preferred color scheme. It is impossible not to feel that life in Pompeii before the eruption in 79 A.D. was lively and colorful.

However, it also is difficult not to be somewhat curious about Pompeii. How could it have stayed under its blanket of ash for so long without being disturbed or looted? The Romans didn’t seem shy about reusing old buildings — why not just clean off the ash and revive the town? Also, you can’t help idly wondering if some of the better preserved paintings weren’t recently added to enhance the viewing experience. In any case, Pompeii was quite interesting. Unfortunately, we saw it during the middle of the day, with crowds of other tourists. As a result of the hot and dry conditions, the ash, and the excavations, walking caused clouds of dust, and after a few hours we were all very thirsty. So, we left parts of the site unexplored and headed back to the car. After a quick bite of pizza at a nearby restaurant — and some much needed water and sodas — we retrieved our car (which was undisturbed) and headed back to Rome.

The drive back to Rome was uneventful. The roads became more crowded as we approached Rome, and even more so after we left the Autostrade and turned onto the “ring road” that encircles Rome. The exist for the airport was well-marked, however, and we found the airport Hilton without much trouble. Finding the Avis drop-off point was much more difficult, because there were virtually no signs showing the location of the drop-off point. After some driving around, and some cursing on my part, Richard and I found the Avis drop-off, which was on the fourth floor of a parking garage. Although I enjoyed driving, it felt good to be free of the car and to have successfully completed the driving part of the trip without an incident.

During our initial 3 days in Rome, we decided we should come back to stay at the aiport Hilton, rather than driving back into Rome itself and taking a long cab ride to the airport. I think it was a good decision. The traffic in Rome is unnerving, and we would have had to get up very early to make the flight. That said, the airport Hilton is a standard, soulless airport hotel with prices that gouge the traveler at every opportunity. Our dinner there was pathetic — the food came at different times, and one of our orders was simply forgotten. It cost about $20 for a cheeseburger and fries. However, Kish did get two excellent Cosmopolitans to help calm her nerves for the flight. After dinner, we walked to the airport, where Richard hoped to find the new Harry Potter book that he needs to read over the summer. No luck on that score. But, it felt smart to scout out the aiport before our departure tomorrow.

It’s been a fun and interesting two weeks of travel in Italy, but I think Kish and the boys (and me, too) are ready to get back home. As the end of a vacation approaches, the momentum to get home becomes irresistible, like a boulder rolling downhill. If we could have gotten a flight tonight, and thereby gotten home a few hours earlier and avoided our last night’s stay at the airport Hilton, I’m sure we would have voted unanimously to do so.

Pompeii

Pompeii

Italian Journal, Day 11

On the grounds of La Badia

On the grounds of La Badia

June 19, 2003:

We were greeted by a bright, clear, sun-dappled morning as we awoke at La Badia. The air smelled of pine and flowers and it seemed that you could see for miles. Birds were chirping and swooping around the ruins of the monastery’s old bell tower.

We had a good breakfast at La Badia’s complimentary breakfast spread. European breakfasts always seem to be heavy on baked goods — pastries, rolls, packaged toast, croissants — and the Italian spreads always feature ham and cheese as well. Add in yogurt containers, Nutella spread, one kind of cereal, some juice, and some kind of fruit and voila! — you have the standard complimentary breakfast. La Badia’s set up was better than most, by reason of the quality and quantity of fruit and cereal — although the hotels over here never seem to get the milk properly chilled.

After breakfast and a final tour of the very cool La Badia grounds, we climbed into the Opel Vectra and headed toward Sorrento. The Vectra has been a very good, practical vehicle. If I were to come to Europe to drive again, I would request it. The dashboard is well-designed, the signals and switches are easy to figure out (with the only exception being a bell-like dinging that occurred right after we got the car, which I eventually realized, to my embarrassment, was the indicator that the emergency brake was on), and the car has good power and acceleration. The skies were clear and the conditions were good on the drive, and we made good time. At one point, I got the car up to 170 kmh, to Kish’s consternation.

Unfortunately, we missed one of our connections, and as a result we headed to Salerno, which is south of Sorrento. We decided to hold off on visiting the Pompeii ruins, and instead to drive up the Amalfi coast line highway, from Salerno to Sorrento. This is a drive that had been recommended as beautiful and exciting.

The scenery is beautiful on the drive, but I couldn’t recommend it to anyone in good conscience. The road is so narrow, the turns are so frequent and sharp, and the dropoffs are so steep that it is impossible to enjoy the scenery, which is marked by deep blue ocean far below, cliffs and flowers and lots of greenery, and little towns and villages literally carved into the rock. Fortunately, we were driving north on the road, which meant we got to hug the rock face as we navigated the hairpin turns. Even so, the driving quickly became a painful exercise. The standard tailgating occurred, and amazingly they allow enormous tour buses to drive the highway. At one point, I had to back up to let one of the tour bus behemoths squeeze by. Add to that a kind of motion sickness from the constant turns and the fact that the drive seems to take forever because you cannot go quickly, and you end up with a pretty unpleasant experience. My guess is that most people who start out to drive the Amalfi coast highway quickly come to regret it, but once you are on the road there does not seem to be any turning back.

After an apparent eternity, we reached Sorrento, where we faced a new challenge — finding our hotel. We drove around streets that apparently have no street signs or traffic markings (including at one point turning the wrong way down a one-way street and backing up), all the time being tailgated and baffled by the maze of narrow streets. Finally, Richard spotted the hotel, or we might still be driving. When we parked our car and unloaded for the night, it felt good to have our feet on the ground.

Sorrento is right on the coast, so the boys and I decided to go swimming. To get to the water, you have to go down about 500 feet, or maybe more, on a long set of staircases that run alongside some roadway switchbacks. When you reach the coast, it is impressivle to look up the cliff at the town. Unfortunately, Sorrento really has no beach to speak of. There is a very small private beach (6 Euros per person entrance fee), which we decided not to use. We walked a bit farther and found an even smaller public beach, with no sand, squeezed between two piers. The beach was totally overrun with people, and we gave up. Instead, we walked along the piers, looking out over the bay at some of the other seaside towns and checking out some of the pleasure craft docked there. It was hot, and it felt good to be out in the sun in a bathing suit.

We have noticed some interesting things about Europeans. They appear to smoke more than Americans. In fact, I would say there are three to four times as many smokers per capita in Italy as in the USA, and there isn’t the kind of oppobrium placed on smokers here that you find in America. Europeans also seem to eat less and drink less, so you don’t see as many obese people (although we did see some chunky German women at the beach). Whether this makes Europeans healthier than Americans is anyone’s guess.

We ended our day with a good dinner at a nearby trattoria, followed by a walk along streets crowded with shops and vendors in the older part of town. Most of the stuff being sold seemed like cheap trinkets, so we weren’t buying. Tomorrow, it’s on to Pompeii, then back to Rome to get ready for our trip home.

Sorrento from the beach

Sorrento from the beach

Italian Journal, Day 10

A view of Orvieto from the ruins on the grounds of La Badia.

A view of Orvieto from the ruins on the grounds of La Badia.

June 18, 2003:

Our Italian trip is winding to a close, and I am feeling somewhat wistful about it. But, we still have some adventures yet to experience.

Today we left Venice and drove to Orvieto, our longest road trip on the vacation. We got up at around 7:30, packed up, had breakfast, and took the waterbus back to the parking garage. Fortunately, our car was there and so were all of our possessions. Our drive to Orvieto was almost entirely on the Autostrade. We drove through Padua, Bologna, and Florence, then headed due south toward Roma. Fortunately, Orvieto is only a few kilometers off the Autostrade. During the drive, we encountered some traffic snarls around Bologna and Florence, but nothing too significant. As always, we stopped at the Autogrill for lunch — where I convinced everyone to have the “toast” ham and cheese sandwich — and we pulled off the Autostrade at Orvieto at around 2 p.m.

Orvieto is one of those classic Italian towns founded in the Middle Ages (or earlier) on top of a steep hill with sheer rock on many sides. We didn’t know exactly where our hotel was, so we drove around the town and quickly became lost in a maze of narrow cobblestone streets. When we reached a square I stopped the car and went into the library to ask for directions. I asked the first lady I saw and to my surprise and delight she offered to lead us to La Badia herself. She climbed into our car and directed us to her house. She then got into her car and led us to La Badia. It quickly became clear why she couldn’t give directions, as we turned left and right on twisting streets and actually left the town. It was an amazing experience, and one that I am certain would not happen in the U.S.A. For this woman, who speaks little English, to climb into a stranger’s car and take time out of her day to help some uncertain travelers! It was a wonderful statement about the warmth and friendliness of the Italian people.

When we reached La Badia thanks to our Good Samaritan, we were even more blown away. La Badia is an ancient monastery that has been converted into a hotel, and it is a striking place. It has a keep, and crumbling walls, and looks out over a valley toward Orvieto in the distance. The courtyard is filled with coniferous trees with that scent of pine and the walkways lead around the ruins of part of the monastery. It had just rained, and the air smelled fresh and clean and felt cool on our skin as we walked around.

We decided to revisit Orvieto, but did not want to become lost again due to the winding streets. So, we parked out of town and trekked up the winding streets to the Duomo, which appears to be in the center of town. It is a large and magnificent church in view of Orvieto’s size, and like the Duomo in Siena it has a striped exterior and interior. The facade has some lovely bas relief scenes from the Bible, and inside are many frescoes and other artwork. The church appears to need lots of repair, though, as seems to be the case with many of the churches we have visited. One can only imagine that the cost of repairing these monumental edifices from another age are an equally monumental drain on municipal resources.

We had some gelato on the square surrounding the Duomo, then returned to our car. Another example of how things are done differently here — you are supposed to keep your ticket with you and pay at a cashier’s window, not as you exit. I had not kept our ticket, so I had to go to the car, get the ticket, walk back upstairs, pay, and then go back to the car to leave.

We relaxed at La Badia for a while, then had a fine, four-course meal that is part of the package deal. To our surprise, you order off a menu. I had some pate and ham, risotta al radicchio and lamb, and a kind of almond torte for dessert. Dinner was excellent!

After dinner, we walked the grounds of La Badia in the moonlight. It is a very evocative, almost mystical place . . . an excellent choice after several days of fighting tourist crowds in Florence and Venice.

Italian Journal, Day 9

Russell and Kish on the Piazza San Marco

Russell and Kish on the Piazza San Marco

June 17, 2003:

We got up today at about 9 a.m. and went down for our complimentary breakfast at the hotel. All of our hotels — save the one in Florence — have included breakfast with the cost of the room, and the quality of the food and ambiance has varied widely. In Rome, the breakfast room was like a sauna (to me, at least), and Kish swears that the same food was put out on each of the three days of our stay. In Assisi, the breakfast buffet was much more complete and was served in a nice large area of the hotel restaurant. In Siena, the buffet was even more extensive, and we ate in a fine, shaded garden at the rear of the hotel with a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. Here, the breakast room is a small back room of the restaurant next door, with a less extensive food selection and more of a diner-type atmosphere. At least the room is cool!

This morning I also received my requested “report fax” from Janie, my secretary, notifying me that all is well on the work front, which is good news., I have to say that I have had no trouble getting away from work here. It’s impossible to think about work when you are navigating medieval streets or driving through the Italian countryside.

After breakfast we headed to the Piazza San Marco to see San Marco Basilica. Our guidebooks had said men could not wear shorts, so we had required the boys to wear long pants. When we got to the church, of course, they were allowing people wearing shorts to enter. C’est la vie. San Marco is an impressive church, and it definitely seems to have more of the eastern, Byzantine influences that you would expect from the principal church of the principal city on the eastern coast of Italy, and one that was a maritime trading power for centuries. The church features gold frescoes and a stunning gold screen, but it is a bit too eastern for my tastes.

We returned to the hotel so the kids could change into shorts, then went off in search of different vistas. We walked to the Chiesa della Salute, which is one of the spits of land at one end of the Grand Canal. It takes a while to get there — there being no direct routes in Venice — and we were thwarted in our effort to get to the tip of the land spit due to construction. Nevertheless, the view was good and the church located there was nice, too.

We walked back for lunch near the Accademia, then Kish went for a rest at the hotel while the boys and I searched for some t-shirts. Richard and I bought some at reasonable prices (for Venice) and then the kids decided to take it easy at the hotel, too. I elected to strike out on my own and visit two more churches — Chiesa dei Frari and San Giovanni e Paoli. Chiesa dei Frari is a neat, beautiful church with an extraordinary altar painting by Titian. Strolling through that church gives a very strong sense of Venice’s history and past glory. The walls are covered by monuments and tombs to past notables, and the floors are covered with marble insets marking the final resting spots of other worthies.

They say you must get lost in Venice at last once, and I got lost after receiving the Chiesa dei Frari. Before long, I found myself in some unknown, sparsely populated neighborhood, and in my search for wall signs to provide some direction I stepped in some dog droppings. So, I backtracked, found a fountain to wash off my shoe, and eventually got my bearings. San Giovanni e Paoli is another stunning church, located next to a hospital. It apparently was the preferred church of Venice’s elite, and has the tombs of a number of Doges. By this time, though, I had experienced church overload, and was ready to return to the hotel.

When I got back to the hotel, Kish and the kids were ready to head out again. We walked to Piazza San Marco via a very circuitous route and had outrageously priced drinks at one of the trattorias along the Piazza. You pay a pretty penny for the ability to watch pigeons being fed by tourists, but it is an entertaining sight. Why some people are attracted to pigeons is beyond me — they are filthy! But, some parents let their kids buy the bird food and then stand in the middle of the piazza, with pigeons on their arms, heads, and hands. Ugh.

We found a nice, moderately priced place for dinner. Kish continued her poor luck in dinner selection, whereas the boys and I had fine meals. Poor Kish — she always tries to order something healthy, and then ends up with a pizza that appears to be covered with grass, or something similarly strange. After dinner, Richard and I sat at a cafe next to the Grand Canal, then we turned in for the night.

I have enjoyed Venice very much. It is a languid, old, interesting place — well worth visiting. Unlike Florence, it does not seem to make much pretense, and it therefore becomes all the more enjoyable. We saw dogs walking the narrow streets, a gondola with a full-throated singer accompanied by an accordion, a mime dressed totally in white and standing on a box so that he looked like a statue, and other points of human interest. What a remarkable place!

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

Italian Journal, Day 8

The view from our hotel room in Venice

The view from our hotel room in Venice

June 16, 2003:

This day saw us travel from Florence to Venice and take our longest car ride yet. We left Florence at about 10 a.m. The drive out of Florence was not an easy one — we got caught in a bit of a traffic tie-up and had to navigate several traffic circles on our way out of town. I think it is fair to say that Italian drivers are aggressive, and the presence of the ubiquitous motor scooters makes even simple maneuvers more complicated, as the scooters dart in and out. I much prefer driving in the Italian countryside.

Once we got out of Florence onto the Autostrade, it became an easier trip. We stopped almost immediately for food and gas, and it was quite an experience. The Italian roadside stops are not at all like an American fast food outlet and gas station. Kish and the boys loaded up on some Italian junk food — Russell finally got to try the “Happy Hippo” candy he had seen on TV — but what was really amazing was the quantity and quality of food and alcohol choices that are available. The place we stopped at had a large sandwich area and bar, plus a restaurant where you could select pasta dishes or salads, or ask them to grill fresh meats. We got sandwiches and had our lunch, and all around us people were loading up on wine and beer. What a change from the prevailing views in the USA!

From Florence to Bologna our ride was hilly, with lots of tunnels and switchbacks. The variety of vehicles on the Autostrade is amazing, including all manner of trucks and delivery vans, high-powered German cars, and grossly underpowered, flimsy little cars that struggle up the inclines. Our Opel seems to stack up nicely. From Bologna to Padua the road flattened out, and there was no apparent speed limit. On the straightaways my top speed got up to about 160 kmh, which is probably around 100 mph. We made it to Venice in good time.

At Venice, we faced on of those tourist/cultural decisions that makes these trips interesting. As we parked in the garage, an attendant came up and told us that we would need to leave our car unlocked with our keys inside. We initially agreed and started to walk away, but obviously felt a lot of trepidation about leaving the car unlocked. So, we asked if there was a place where we could park the car and lock it, were directed to a stop six stories higher, and ended up parking there — with a lot more comfort now that our car was locked and the keys kept securely in my pocket.

We then negotiated a ride on a waterbus into Venice, which takes a bit of persistence. The ride into Venice was crowded and stuffy, but we got off at only the third stop, so the ride wasn’t too bad. Our hotel is a charming place immediately adjacent to the Rialto Bridge. It was about 10 yards from the waterbus stop. When we got to our room, we discovered that it had a balcony that looked directly out over the aptly named Grand Canal. What a view!

We promptly walked out into Venice. The concierge gave us a “map,” but it is wholly inadequate other than indicating general directions. My guess is that the map did not have the names of more than 90% of the “streets.” Fortunately, most of the streets show the way to two of the big designations. In our part of the city, the two locations are the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco. We walked to the Piazza San Marco and found it without too much trouble. It is an impressive, strikingly large square with the Basilica San Marco at one end and large municipal buildings on the other sides. On one side of he Basilica is the Palace of the Doge and a view of the islands off into the distance. It was a hot day, so we decided to skip the Basilica, where there was a long line, and save it for tomorrow.

Kish wanted to see the Guggenheim Museum, so we headed toward the Accademia — another one of the signpost destinations — and found the Guggenheim after a bit of wandering. It is a fine collection of modern art, with Picassos, Pollocks, and other assorted cubists, abstractionists, et al. Many of the works seemed to be from the artists before they hit their peak — such as Pollocks from his cubist-type period. Not all of the pieces worked for me, but the color and form of the artwork made a refreshing change from all of the religious icons and “annunciation”-type paintings we have seen on this trip.

The Guggenheim just about did us in, so we headed back to the hotel. We enjoyed the view from our balcony, then did some exploring to try to find a restaurant. We ended up at a place at the foot of the Rialto Bridge. A bit touristy, and therefore more expensive, but the view was very nice and the food was good. As we ate the wind picked up, but the rain held off. After dinner we took a stroll and found that, at the Piazza San Marco, the restaurants ringing the piazza hire musical groups to serenade the diners. We walked past to the sounds of Mozart, Beethoven, and the Godfather theme.

The night also seems to be a prime time for gondola rides. Many of the gondolas were booked, and it was entertaining to watch some of the more obese travelers struggle to get into the gondolas. I have to say that I have not one bit of interest in taking a gondola ride, but it was pleasant watching the boats glide past.

Kish and I watched some Italian TV before turning in. TV seems to be the same the world over — Hollywood movies, infomercials, game shows, and mindless cop dramas. In Florence, I had seen Popeye cartoons dubbed in Italian, which indicates how desperate the Italian networks are for product.

A disconcerting and not particularly reassuring Venetian sign

A disconcerting and not particularly reassuring Venetian sign

Italian Journal, Day 7

A view from the Ponte Vecchio

A view from the Ponte Vecchio

June 15, 2003:

Kish and I got up early today to do some laundry. We walked to a nearby laundromat, managed to decipher the signs, and then sat there watching the international version of MTV with equal amounts of astonishment and disgust. The female singers featured on MTV all seem to have taken dancing lessons from strippers, and there’s not much mystery about what the singers are thinking about. We were grateful when the drying cycle ended and we could pack up and leave.

When Kish and I got back to the hotel, the kids weren’t ready to go yet, so I ventured off on my own for another look at the “Gates of Paradise” at the Duomo and then a quick walk to some of the other sites. The “Gates of Paradise” are a remarkable work, in part because they deal with the familiar and disturbing stories of the Book of Genesis — the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Cain Slaying Abel, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, etc.

I then learned that one of the principal museums in Florence was closed (it closes on irregular Sundays, and this was one of them), so I walked to Santa Croce. It was only partially open — you could walk into the entrance area and look around, but that was about it. My brief visit was worth it, if only to see the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo. The church itself is a pretty affair with a large and ornate stained glass window at the opposite end. (Interestingly, I returned to Santa Croce later in the day for a closer look and couldn’t get in because I had no Euros and the church actually charged an entrance fee. This is the second or third church to charge an entrance fee, which I find astonishing. The kids think this is no big deal, but I am amazed that a house of worship would not be free and open to all.)

I then walked back to the Duomo, which also was closed due to Sunday services. However, you could go in through a side entrance to enjoy the service, which I did. I stayed for only a short listen to the service, because I needed to get back to Kish and the boys, but it was long enough to appreciate the effect of the Duomo dome on the music. The voices were clear as they were raised in song on the floor, but then rose in the air to become mixed and churned in a kind of musical melange. It was quite striking.

After my return to our hotel, Kish and the boys and I struck out for lunch and an afternoon of touring. We could not find many open restaurants, so we ate at a tourist trap next to the Duomo where we got gouged for a mediocre meal. There is no question but that our most expensive and least satisfying meals have been lunches at or near large tourist locations.

The Uffizi was a different story. After a relatively long wait (50 minutes or so) in sweltering heat, we finally entered the door of what must be one of the world’s greatest art galleries. Some of the rooms were closed, but we were able to see the Botticellis, da Vincis, a Michelangelo, Rembrandts, an El Greco, a de Goya, and countless other works. The effect is overwhelming, and the museum is well organized, so that you can follow the trend in art from religious icons to a broader perspective that includes classical imagery (like representations of stories from Greek mythology) and then finally to the broader world at large. The classical masterpieces are fine, although the constant repetition of themes gets a bit wearing. I much prefer the portraits, including the dozens of portraits of kings, Popes, explorers, sultans, and other notables that line the gallery walls. Kish and the boys don’t have much patience for this kind of museum visit, but I appreciated their perseverance on this occasion.

After we exited the Uffizi we headed to the Ponte Vecchio. It was again insufferably hot. We had some ice cream and granulata then headed back to the hotel. I left for a tour of piazzas near the Uffizi gallery, which feature all kinds of interesting sculpture, students sketching, sweaty tourists, and other people-watching opportunities. It was particularly interesting to see the statues of notable Italians in the Uffizi courtyard — including Dante, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Boccaccio, Galileo, and others. No one can deny Italy — in its ancient Roman days or its Renaissance incarnation — its rightful place in the pantheon of cultures that have made an enormous contribution to the betterment of the human condition and civilization in general.

This leads one to wonder about what happens to civilizations and nations — why they lose their leading role and then are consigned to living off their past glories. In ny view, Florence seems to be in that category — more concerned with preserving and marketing its past than with moving forward into the future. This has caused it to make decisions that seem kind of cheap and tawdry — like allowing a large, open-air market that sells t-shirts, leather jackets and other paraphernalia that appears to be a sop to the tourist trade. I enjoyed this visit to Florence, but I’m also looking forward to Venice.

Our dinner was very good on both nights in Florence, by the way. In acknowledging the contribution that Italy has made to the world, we can’t overlook Italian cuisine and Italian wine.

Italian Journal, Day 6

In the walled city of San Gimighiano

In the walled city of San Gimighiano

June 14, 2003:

Today we drove from Siena to Florence, with a stop in San Gimighiano.

I liked the hotel in Siena very much. Our room was cool — finally! — and we enjoyed a fine breakfast in a garden area behind the hotel, with a lovely view of the surrounding countryside. What a change to be sitting in cool shade in a beautiful garden, rather than in a sweaty breakfast room, as in Rome! It made for a much more enjoyable breakfast.

After squeezing our Opel out of its parking spot — where we had been pinned in by other cars — we drove to San Gimighiano. It is an interesting little town, apparently little changed from the Middle Ages, where it was a stop on the pilgrimage route to Rome. All of that ended with the Great Plague of 1348, and the town became frozen in time.

San Gimighiano was noteworthy from our standpoint for the Medieval Torture Museum, which was fascinating but very disturbing. The endless creativity that the people of the Middle Ages expended in inflicting pain and humiliation in order to extract “confessions” boggles the mind. I think the parade of the rack, the Iron Maiden, the gibbet, flaying the wheel, the stocks, the dunking chair, all made an impression on the boys. Is capital punishment in America really so different?

We left San Gimighiano and drove to Florence, which was a bit hairy. Driving into a large city with a different language and no real idea about where you are going is an adventure. However, Kish did a great job and we found our hotel without too much trouble.

We then headed out into Florence. Our first stop was the Duomo, which is another incredibly large, impressive cathedral. It took more than 100 years to build, and features dozens of busts, statues, frescoes, paintings, etc. What motivated these towns to spend their time and treasure on raising these ornate places of worship? Why churches, and not universities, or hospitals, or public baths?

We then walked to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. What an awesome sight that is! After seeing a room of the traditional, Byzantine-influenced Madonna and Child paintings, we suddenly come into a long room with the gigantic David at one end. The room is lined with unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, and then capped at one end by David itself — head somewhat outsized, broken arm and toes, doused with wax, but still glorious and extraordinary. Michelangelo and da Vinci are, of course, the icons of the Renaissance, but sometimes we take them for granted. What caused the explosion of creativity that took art from the rigid Madonna and Child to the realism of David, the Mona Lisa, and the Sistine Chapel? What would da Vinci or Michelangelo have accomplished if they were born into the modern world, well educated, and given the kind of opportunity that Americans now take for granted?

After seeing David the boys and I walked around before returning to our hotel. It is a fine hotel, near the Duomo, in a university section. We had a good dinner at a nearby restaurant, and after dinner walked to the Ponte Vecchio on the Arno. As we approached our hotel, a live band began playing, and I forced us to stop and listen to a song. What a thrill to hear live music in a Firenze square!

As we get ready to turn in for the night, our attention is focused on getting ready to do laundry tomorrow morning. From the ecstasy of the Duomo and David to the dull reality of laundry — such are the highs and lows of travel.

Italian Journal, Day 5

On the main square in Siena

On the main square in Siena

June 13, 2003:

This morning we left Assisi and drove to Siena. Our night’s stay in Assisi was incredibly hot. We even opened the windows completely to try to catch a bit of breeze, but without success. The “air conditioning” unit in the room seemed to only make the air more humid. Neither Kish nor I got much sleep, between the sweltering conditions, the late-night parties in the bars beneath our bedroom window, and the workers who arrived promptly at 6 a.m. to begin working (very loudly) on the building being renovated directly across the street.

Before we left, Russell and I walked up once again to the Castel Ruffino at the top of Assisi. It again offered a striking view of the town and surrounding countryside, but when we got to the summit I was drenched in sweat — and it was only 8 a.m. or so. I have to say I have sweated more on this trip than on any trip I can remember.

We had a light breakfast then hit the road for Siena. The Italian road system continues to impress. The roads are well-paved and well-maintinained, and the destinations are well maked. We had a glitch or two but made it to Siena in time for lunch and a tour around town.

Siena is a very interesting place. It has a large, fan-shaped central square with a tall clock tower, surrounded by medieval buildings. The central square is a very cool place where people sit and chat. Later in the afternoon, a protester on a minibike drove into the square (which is illegal, I think), shouted something I did not understand, then drove off. His performance interrupted the rhythm of the square for only an instant, then everyone returned to their gelato.

The central church here — called, I guess inevitably, the Duomo — is a totally unique place (and I know full well that is a redundant statement.) It is built of black and white, horizontally layered marble. The effect is unlike any church or cathedral I have seen before — more celebratory than solemn. The church also has inlaid marble scenes in the floor, busts of the Popes high up in the rafters, and various statues, fescoes, paintings, and other artwork on the walls. In all, a most interesting place.

After we visited the Duomo Kish returned to the hotel and the boys and I wandered about. We saw the soccer stadium, a kind of pathetic carnival with rides like you would find at the Ohio State Fair, and the Basilica of St. Catherine, one of the patron saints of Italy. St. Catherine’s looks to be badly in need of repair. It’s depressing to see these monumental churches fall into such a sad state, where they lack the parishioners or supporters to even maintain what they have, much less grow and add to their legacy. The boys and I then walked back to the central square, where the kids bought t-shirts.

After a brief respite at the hotel (where I grabbed 40 winks) we headed back to Siena for dinner and a brief sit down on the edge of the town square. I imagine sitting at the edge of the square and chatting has been a primary source of entertainment in Siena for centuries. We saw a family trying — unsuccessfully — to fly a kite, kids kicking a soccer ball, little kids running across the square, a mangy dog getting loose from his master, and other humdrum daily scenes.

In all, Siena made for an intersting day. I think our main hope, however, is that the air conditioning in our hotel works well. I know we all could use a good night’s sleep.

Italian Journal, Day 4

Russell and I take a break in Assisi

Russell and I take a break in Assisi

June 12, 2003:

Today was close to a perfect travel day. It began in Rome and ended in Assisi — not far as the crow flies, but a significant difference in feel and attitude.

We left the Hotel Carriage after suffering through another sweltering breakfast. (In fairness, no one but me seemed to think the breakfast room was like a sauna, but what the heck! As soon as I sit down in there I feel like a melting candle.) We took a cab to Avis and got our rent-a-car. I have to say, I approached the car issue with a lot of trepidation after observing Rome traffic and the infernal scooters darting in and out. However, Avis is fortunately located close to the Rome ring road, and we we able to get out of Rome without much difficulty or bother.

The drive to Assisi is pretty basic. Italian roads (particularly the Autostrade) seem to be well-marked and accessible. We made it to Assisi with only one wrong turn, and lucked out by finding our hotel on the main road into town. It’s a nice place, although the heat continues to pester us. Once in Assisi we had a quick lunch (for which we were gouged) and then went to the Basilica of St. Francis. It is an interesting place, perched on a hill at the edge of town. However, it is not difficult to reach a sort of overload on large, overpowering cathedrals. One thing that I noted was the ornately carved chairs — for what purpose, who knows? — but each was distinct and lovely, and probably the product of months of labor by a medieval craftsman.

After St. Francis’ Basilica, we walked back to the hotel so Kish could take a break. The boys and I then set out to the Cathedral of the Poor Clares, which seems to be crumbling away, and the large castle at the top of the town. The Cathedral of the Poor Clares was very thought-provoking. At some point, it appears to have been greatly decorated with frescoes, but the frescoes seem to have fallen apart or faded away, and much of the walls are now whitewash. It made me think about the nature of religious faith and fervor, and how there are probably not nearly as many purely devout believers as there used to be. At some point, churches like the Cathedral of the Poor Clares were probably packed with pious worshipers; now the Cathedral seems to be largely a tourist attraction.

The castle was very cool, because it has a commanding view in three directions and is probably 1000 feet above the center of town. The boys and I took lots of pictures and climbed to the top of the towers. A very striking view of the scenic, rolling Italian countryside, under a bright blue sky. There were some German kids up at the castle with us, and they were acting like punks — loud and uncaring. As we walked back, they would shout “Achtung!” and then roll their large water bottle down the steep hill leading up to the castle.

When we finally got back to town, the kids went to the hotel, and I decided to duck into one last church. It was a small church, but it is where I have had my best travel moment of the trip so far. I came into the church dripping with sweat. There was no one in there, save for a monk in brown robes and a rope belt and sandals, who was doing some chores. A CD of Gregorian Chants was playing softly, and the church was dark and cool. I sat on one of the pews and drank in the atmosphere. I was along for a few minutes and simply let my thoughts wander over the simple paintings and decorations, all as the Gregorian Chants played low in the background. A Supreme Moment!

Kish and the boys and I then went out for a drink before dinner (after Kish had lost our debit card to a machine) and the kids discovered some shaved ice concoction. We had dinner at the hotel, which was a fine, multi-course affair, then we walked back up the hill to the castle, with Russell towing Kish a good part of the way. We later strolled back to the town square, where Kish and the boys had another shaved ice concoction. We are now back in our hotel room. It is hot, and the window is wide open. It sounds like there is lots of activity on the square, and we are hoping that things finally cool down. It was another bright, cloudless, very hot day.

The castle at Assisi

The castle at Assisi

Italian Journal, Day 3

Richard on the bridge to the Castel Sant'Angelo

Richard on the bridge to the Castel Sant'Angelo

June 11, 2003:

Today is our last day in Rome, and we split up to do different things. Kish went shopping, and the boys and I headed off to see some of the famous churches . But first, breakfast at the Hotel Carriage — which means, for me, rivers of sweat as I try to eat something. I’m not sure what it is, but eating in that room at that time causes the pores to open and the sweat to flow like crazy.

The Hotel Carriage has some good points — reasonably priced (for Rome), excellent location only yards away from the Spanish Steps and the Metro, good restaurants in the vicinity, a pleasant enough staff — but it gets incredibly hot on a hot day, and stays hot into the night. It’s a nice enough place, but I wouldn’t come here again in the summer.

After my sweaty breakfast, the boys and I headed off to St. Giovanni Lateran and San Clemente. St. Giovanni is bigger and fancier (although its neighborhood is questionable), but I preferred San Clemente. (After visiting St. Giovanni, the boys and I took a wrong turn, and we walked through what appeared to be a market for fenced goods.) St. Giovanni is magnificant, but not very memorable. San Clemente is is less ostentatious, but much more memorable because it is a 16th century church that sits on an 11th century church, which in turn sits on a 4th century building devoted to the cult of Mithra. One of the fascinating aspects was that debris from the Roman Empire period — marble heads, chipped cornices, pedestals, etc. — was used as a kind of fill when the 16th century church was built. Apparently there was so much of the stuff floating around it was like quarry stone for construction purposes. What a comedown from the Roman Empire days!

After San Clemente the boys and I took a long, hot walk to find the Appian Way (big deal!) then took the Metro back to our hotel. On our last ride, I finally got the automatic coin-operated ticket machine to work, and felt a sense of great accomplishment. It like the Rome Metro, although it is hot down there. However, it is easy to find your way around.

Russell, Kish and I then had a nice, leisurely lunch which Richard took it easy. After the lunch, Richard and I walked around to see the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Vatican again (although we couldn’t go in because Richard was wearing shorts) and then wandered back to the Pantheon, after stopping at two churches that were spectacular but not in any guidebook. What a bummer for a church to be beautiful and moving and awesome, but not quite enough to make the cut for Frommer’s in view of the competition! Rome is a city of churches, and it becomes a bit numbing after a while.

After Richard and I got back, we walked down to the Forum ruins one last time. Seeing the ruins as the sun sets is the best time, I think. We then had a pleasant dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, sat on the Spanish Steps for a spell, and had some gelato before returning to the hotel. Tomorrow we leave Rome, and I face the challenge of Italian driving. I have to admit I have some trepidation about it. We’ll see.

My top Roman sites:

1. Ruins of ancient Rome

2. Sistine Chapel

3. Pantheon

4. St. Peter’s Basilica

5. Trevi Fountain

I would definitely return to Rome, but would like to come when it is not quite so warm. I bet the average temperature has been about 85 degrees while we have been here. That makes it difficult for a city largely without air conditioning or ice. Other than the heat, though, Rome has been great!

italy-pictures-268

Italian Journal, Day 2

St. Peter's

St. Peter's

June 10, 2003:

We got up at about 9 a.m. (which is really sleeping in for me) and after our gratis continental breakfast we hopped onto the Metro and headed toward the Vatican. The Metro is somewhat mystifying — for some reason you can’t get change for your fare money from the machines — and the train itself was hot and stuffy. However, we only had to go 3 stops, and when we got off we had only a few blocks’ walk to the Vatican. It was another extremely hot day, with temperatures in the high 80s or low 90s and not a cloud in the sky.

The Vatican tour began with St. Peter’s Basilica, which is superb. The epic scale of the building, the monumental statuary, the extraordinary paintings and artwork all combine to have an overwhelming effect. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the crowd of loud tourists clad in shorts and flip-flops help to return the celestial to the mundane. For every Pieta there is a loud, profane tourist who seems to be unaware that the basic thrust of St. Peter’s is to be a church.

One of the more interesting things about St Peter’s is the statuary of the Popes over time. Many of the Popes, as I understand it, were cynical and corrupt politicians, advancing the narrow agendas of their families and often responsible for fomenting conflict and war. Nevertheless, all Popes, good and bad, are pictured with hands templed in prayer and faces turned toward the heavens with looks of beatific pleasure. The Catholic Church apparently makes no effort to separate good from bad when it comes to Popes.

We then went to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. The Museum, like the Louvre in Paris, is a case of sensory overload. Too many tapestries, ancient maps, globes, and painted cabinets to properly absorb and appreciate. The Sistine Chapel, however, cuts through the sensory overload and makes an indelible impression. The sheer beauty of the paintings on the ceiling is hard to grasp, and even more hard to fathom is the idea behind the paintings — such as the notion that there should be a minute bap between the fingers of God and Adam in the Creation of Man panel. That artistic judgment alone confirms Michelangelo’s genius. Sitting in the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by such brilliance, is an awesome and humbling experience. Kish managed to put it all in perspective, however, by falling asleep on one of the benches at the rear of the Chapel.

After the Sistine Chapel we left the Vatican Museum, had lunch at a neighborhood trattoria, and returned to our hotel. Kish and the boys decided to hang out at the hotel, and I decided to strike off on my own. With the digital camera in tow, I went to the Fountain of Triton — a bit of a disappointment — and then the churches of St. Mary Maggiore and St. Peter in Chains. Both churchs were fine, but in different ways. St. Mary Maggiore was an ornate, overpowering-type church, with statuary and gilt and huge paintings and multiple apses and chapels. St. Peter in Chains was much simpler, and seemed more like a real church. I preferred the latter, and not just because of Michelangelo’s Moses, which is magnificent. St. Peter in Chains had a certain and atractive dignity and solemnity that befits a true, operating church.

I was amazed, as we visited various churches today, at the boorish behavior of other tourists as they visited these religious institutions. They wear clothes that seem inappropriate and talk much too loudly. I would like to see these visitors show more respect for the idea behind these churches. These are placed of deep faith and religious meaning. Is it asking too much to have visitors dress and act appropriately?

After St. Peter in Chains I saw that I was close to the Colisseum, and I found myself drawn irresistably to the Roman ruins once again. I took many more pictures and stumbled across the plain of crumbling ruins, once again awed and humbled by the age of the ruins, by the ideas they represent, and by the sheer chance that separates one preserved block of stone from another that was taken away or crumbled to dust hundreds of years ago. I could easily spend hours at the Forum and Capitoline Hill.

After I strolled back to our hotel Kish and the boys and I walked over to Piazza Navono, where we sat in a cafe and enjoyed an appropriate beverage, then we came back to the neighborhood of our hotel for dinner. My entree was selected by the waiter and was excellent. After only two days in Rome, I can say I like it a great deal — the pace, the food, the antiquity found cheek to jowl with more modern buildings. It has been hot, and dirty, and filled with graffiti, but those attributes cannot mask its other charms.

Italian Journal, Day 1

The Colisseum

The Colisseum

It has now been almost six years since our trip to Italy. I kept a short journal during that trip, which has never been transcribed. What better place to transcribe it than in our family blog? So, over the next few weeks, I will transcribe the journal with appropriate pictures from the trip.

June 9, 2003:

We arrived at the Rome airport early, at about 7:30 a.m. We cleared customs and grabbed a cab to our hotel, which is near the Spanish Steps. Our cab driver was friendly, but spoke very little English. The most remarkable thing about the cab ride was the incredible number of scooters darting in and out of traffic as we came into Rome. Our hotel, the Carriage Hotel, is a charming, traditional Italian hotel wth unique rooms and friendly staff workers. Although the hotel advertises air conditioning, the rooms are still very muggy.

We then walked to the Colisseum after grabbing a bite for breakfast. It was a walk of about a mile in 80+ degree heat. The Colisseum is an extraordinary place. It is much bigger than I expected. It is not hard to imagine how impressive the building must have been in AD 73, just after it was completed. Kish bought a Venus de Milo replica at the Colisseum. The seller came down from 45 Euro to 20 Euro in the blink of an eye.

After the Colisseum, Kish went back to the hotel and the boys and I went to the Forum and the Capitoline Hill. We searched in vain for the Palace of the Vestal Virgins, but did find the arches of Constantine, Titus and Septimus Severus, the Senate, the Rostrum, and the remains of the Temple of Saturn. It is hard not to imagine what it must have been like when Rome was in its glory. It is a beautiful place, and very thought-provoking.

The boys and I then walked back toward the hotel, and stopped for pizza and refreshments. When we got back to the hotel, everyone took a midday siesta. It was about 2 p.m. We awoke at 4 p.m.and headed out for some more walking. We took a short stroll over to the Spanish Steps and had some ice cream at a small cafe. We reversed course and headed back to the Trevi Fountain. It was a magnificent site: an enormous, brilliantly rendered sculpture, a bright blue, sunlit sky, and the quiet murmur of the water from the fountain. It was not too crowded, and a most enjoyable spot for people-watching as we sat on the steps surrounding the fountain.

Kish, the boys and I then walked to the Pantheon. By that time, the sun was beginning to set and many of the streets were in shadow. We encountered our first beggars along the way, including a small, hunched-over woman dressed entirely in black. The Pantheon was another inspiring sight. The dome is enormous, and there is a solemnity and grandeur when you step into the huge structure, with the oculus high above and statuary surrounding you at all points of the compass. It does make you wonder what ancient Rome was like, before its noble facade was stripped away and its monumental architecture was allowed to crumble into ruin.

Our final stop for the day was the Argentinal Sacra, which is a relatively recently unearthed collection of buildings from the Republican era. Our main point of interest was counting the cats that stretched and played down in those ruins. There must have been two dozen cats visible amongst the pillars and stones. It’s hard to say what impressed Russell more — the number of cats or the incredibly small size of some of the Italian automobiles.

Our day ended with dinner at the restaurant next door and a slide show of our digital photography in the boys’ room. Now we need to figure out tomorrow’s itinerary, which I think will include the Vatican. I really can’t believe that I am in Rome, even as I write these words. What an interesting feeling, to walk the paths walked by Caesar and the Roman emperors and to witness more than 2000 years of living history. It makes you realize what a young country America is. I think every American should see Rome, to help put our nation’s current dominance into perspective. I am sure that the Romans of Augustus’ and Vespasian’s days thought the Empire was ever-lasting, and only a few centuries later the dust and debris was accumulating on the floor of the Forum.